Thursday, December 31, 2009

Afghanistan: tragic ending to a bad year

In a perfect world of perfectly detached observers, each death in a war zone would be marked equally -- but then, in a perfect world there would be no wars to begin with. In the real world things are otherwise. Deaths on one's own side loom larger. The recent events in Afghanistan -- the killing of seven CIA employees and the killing of four Canadian soldiers and a journalist -- ensure that this will be recalled as a very bad end to a bad year.

Is the Obama administration wise or foolish to retreat from 'democracy promotion' in the Arab world?

"Democracy promotion" was a mainstay, at least rhetorically, of the Bill Clinton foreign policy and of G.W. Bush's. As a practical matter, however, it never achieved all that much, at least not in the Middle East. The U.S.'s major Arab allies in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have not become democracies of any recognizable sort. Kuwait and a couple of other countries have taken some steps toward opening their political systems to greater participation by women and other previously excluded groups, but there has been no general transformation of the Middle East in a democratic direction. Iraq has the forms of democracy, but whether it will turn out in the long run to be a well-functioning system (or even functioning at all) remains at this point an open question.

In a recent article on U.S. grand strategy in Int'l Studies Perspectives (November 2009), David C. Ellis writes: "From a grand strategic position, long-term victory in the GWOT [global war on terror] is hardly feasible without a demonstration of democratic governance in the Middle East.... The overriding that any attempt at reforming the United States' Middle Eastern allies will ultimately require entrenched elites to absolve themselves of their power and position." (Note: Although the GWOT label officially has been abandoned by the U.S. government, analysts continue to use it.)

The dilemma to which Ellis refers is so intractable that the Obama administration has decided to downgrade democracy promotion as an objective, at least according to an op-ed piece by Jackson Diehl published last month ("The deflated Arab hopes for Obama," Wash. Post, Nov. 30, 2009). Diehl notes that Sec. of State Clinton did not mention the word "democracy" in a speech she gave in Morocco in November, nor did she refer to "the Arabs who are fighting to create independent newspapers, political parties or human rights organizations."

The Egyptian sociologist and reform advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who (along with others) met with Clinton after her speech, told Diehl that he urged on Clinton the importance of the next two years "for determining the political direction of the Middle East." Egypt in particular has parliamentary elections scheduled and then a presidential election in 2011. According to Diehl:
"Clinton, said Ibrahim, replied that democracy promotion had always been a centerpiece of U.S. diplomacy and that the Obama administration would not give it up -- 'but that they have a lot of other things on their plate.' For Arab liberals, the translation is easy, if painful: Regardless of what the president may have said in Cairo, Obama's vision for the Middle East doesn't include 'a new beginning' in the old political order."
Assuming Diehl's analysis is correct, is this development as lamentable as he suggests? Maybe. But there are at least two sides to most foreign policy questions, and the other side here would argue that the metaphor of a crowded plate is accurate: the Obama administration has too many other pressing priorities now to devote much energy to a project that has proved frustratingly difficult in the past. On the other hand, if Ellis and Diehl are right, downplaying support for Middle Eastern democratic reformers may not be wise long-term policy. It is worth remembering that incarceration and torture in an Egyptian jail is mainly what turned Ayman al-Zawahiri from an Islamist opponent of the regime into a bitter, remorseless killer and ideologist of global jihad. How many more Zawahiris are being created in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world today?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Rusty master-key

Kal at TMND critically examines Ross Douthat's views about Islam, as expressed in Douthat's writing on Muslims in Europe, the Swiss referendum on minarets, and so on. The post calls the clash-of-civilizations thesis, to which Douthat subscribes, "a master-key for the intellectually lazy." Nice phrase.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Exactly the wrong kind of new year's gift: a "modernization" of the U.S. nuclear arsenal

Republican senators are advocating construction of a new generation of U.S. nukes, saying it's a condition of their support for a new START treaty with Russia. This is lunacy: unnecessary, wasteful, and counterproductive. Sounds like a fair amount of what Senate Republicans have been doing lately.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Eritrean ambassador to UK: "We have never, never, never" aided Somali Islamists

In response to UN Security Council sanctions against Eritrea, the first SC sanctions according to this report since the 2006 sanctions against Iran, the Eritrean ambassador to Britain is quoted as saying: "Now we are 100% sure that we have never, never, never supplied military equipment or otherwise to the extremists in Somalia."

Perhaps there is an inverse relation between the heatedness of a denial and the breadth of consensus that an allegation is true.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Gates memo suggests joint State-Defense funds for 'nation-building'

A recent unclassified memo from Sec. of Defense Gates to Sec. of State Clinton has been obtained by the Wash Post and is reported on today (Mary Beth Sheridan and Greg Jaffe, "Gates proposes 3 funds to aid unstable countries," WP, 12/24, p.A2 link). The memo suggests creation of "three long-term funds...dedicated to training security forces, preventing conflicts and stabilizing violence-torn societies around the world."

The State Dept and AID, as the Post story notes, have traditionally "taken the lead" in this kind of work, but in recent years the military has become increasingly active in it, and not just in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Gates memo makes specific reference to "complaints about the militarization of U.S. foreign policy," according to the Post report, stemming from the "huge increase in funding for stabilization efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan" (but, as just noted, the Pentagon's involvement in traditionally civilian work goes well beyond those two countries). Obstacles to joint funds of the sort proposed include the existing structure of congressional oversight; the memo suggests the creation of "special standing committees in the House and Senate" to avoid having to report to eight different congressional committees.
The State Dept has not yet responded formally to the proposal, but a spokesman is quoted as saying the memo "contains some creative ideas on moving forward."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

McChrystal in Ottawa

I happened to catch on the radio this evening about twenty minutes of a recent q-and-a on Afghanistan conducted by Gen. McChrystal with an informed Canadian audience. Some of his answers were fine I thought, but the response to a question about cooperation with Pakistan and border issues struck me as weak. McChrystal said, basically, that he meets frequently with Gen. Kiyani (head of the Pakistani army) and sometimes in tripartite fashion with the Afghanistan army head, that matters are improving but not perfect, plus one or two other generalities, and that was it. Not only was there no mention of the drone program, which is understandable I suppose since it is officially unacknowledged, but there was very little beyond platitudes on this particular question. Perhaps this is because things are going on that he cannot talk about in public. (Let's hope so.)

Also see: Noah Schachtman on Can U.S. troops run McChrystal's soft power playbook?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Some notable IR books of the past decade

At Crooked Timber they're having a discussion of "top" political philosophy books of the last decade. I don't know what the "top" IR books of the decade (meaning, here, 2000 and forward) are, but I thought I'd throw out the names of some possible candidates. The list is biased by what happens to be on my bookshelf or in my head at the moment and by my own particular interests. In a few cases, to be noted, I haven't read a word of the books in question, so those instances represent just hunches that the book is worth reading. The list is arranged by date of publication (earliest first).

Robert Jackson, The Global Covenant (2000). Aims to integrate the "political theory of human conduct" (identified by the author with Oakeshott, Collingwood, and Berlin) and the international society tradition, especially its more conservative, pluralist side. A vigorous normative defense of the traditional principles of non-intervention and state sovereignty.

Joshua Goldstein, War and Gender (2001). Argues that societies throughout history have molded men to be warriors and slotted women primarily into supporting rather than combat roles, even though some women are as physically capable of being soldiers as men (or in some cases, more capable). In other words, while there are average physical differences between the sexes, culture is more constraining than biology or anatomy. The book is a sweeping multidisciplinary synthesis. (For critical comment, see the review symposium in Perspectives on Politics; I'm too lazy to get the citation right now.) [Disclosure alert: I know the author.]

John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001). I disagree with this book's argument and perspective, but it's a major statement by a noted scholar. And he writes well.

Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights (2002). In contrast for example to Jackson's The Global Covenant, Pogge argues that some basic institutional aspects of the global order are unjust and that "the citizens and governments of the wealthy societies, by imposing the present global economic order, significantly contribute to the persistence of severe poverty and thus share institutional moral responsibility for it." He makes some specific proposals, e.g. for "a global resources dividend."

Peter Katzenstein, A World of Regions: Asia and Europe in the American Imperium (2005). Bought it but have not read it.

Stephen Walt, Taming American Power (2005). Insightful analysis of "the global response to U.S. primacy" (to quote the subtitle).

Patrick T. Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy: German Reconstruction and the Invention of the West (2006). Have not read it but am familiar with some of the author's articles (and also [disclosure alert] know the author).

Saskia Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (2006). Bought it but have read only a tiny bit of it. I suspect, however, that Sassen is stronger on the "global" than the "medieval" part of her subject.

Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006). The only book on this list by a journalist rather than an academic, but it's researched with scholarly thoroughness. Very good on the background of bin Laden and Zawahiri; the portrait of the latter is especially revealing.

Alexander Downes, Targeting Civilians in War (2008). After dipping into parts of this book, I'm not sure I entirely agree with the argument; however, it's a thoughtful and well-researched approach to the topic.

George Gavrilis, The Dynamics of Interstate Boundaries (2008). Have not read it, but anyone with a serious interest in this subject will want to.

Daniel Nexon, The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe (2009). My bookmark is stuck at p.126 and may remain there permanently. Contains interesting ideas, but the exposition in the theoretical chapters could have been tightened and shortened.

George Quester, Preemption, Prevention and Proliferation: The Threat and Use of Weapons in History (2009). A short book by a well-known scholar. I have only dipped into it.

There are other titles I could mention but I'll stop here, at least for now. Comments, suggestions, criticisms? Chime in.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

International Relations and American political science: revisiting some disciplinary history

The disciplinary history of International Relations (IR) has been a scholarly growth industry in recent years. Articles and books have re-evaluated major writers and traditions and questioned the once-standard presentation of the field’s evolution as a series of stylized "great debates."

One result of this work is that more attention is being paid to the history of IR’s connection with political science. At least in the U.S. and in much of Europe, IR has ended up, for the most part, as a subfield of political science. To be sure, there are many scholars and analysts who "do" IR and are not political scientists, and there are many programs in international studies whose faculty and courses are drawn from a range of fields, but it remains the case that the majority of those studying IR in the academy are political scientists. However, the relationship between IR and political science, particularly American political science, has hardly been an uncomplicated romance.

"The growth of the discipline [of International Relations] cannot be separated from the American role in world affairs after 1945," Stanley Hoffmann observed in his 1977 essay "An American Social Science: International Relations."* He pointed to “a remarkable chronological convergence” between U.S. policy-makers’ concerns and scholars’ output:
"What [American] leaders looked for, once the cold war started, was some intellectual compass which would serve multiple functions: exorcise isolationism, and justify a permanent and global involvement in world affairs; rationalize the accumulation of power, the techniques of intervention, and the methods of containment apparently required by the cold war;...and reassure a nation eager for ultimate accommodation, about the possibility of both avoiding war and achieving its ideals."
Such an "intellectual compass" was exactly what many IR scholars furnished. And yet, Hoffmann went on to observe, a peculiarly American "quest for certainty" tried to purge from the discipline the inexactness that inheres in its subject matter, producing a drive for precision "that turns out false or misleading."**

This complaint echoed debates of two decades earlier, debates which are the subject of an article published last year. In "The Realist Gambit: Postwar American Political Science and the Birth of IR Theory," International Political Sociology 2:4 (December 2008): 281-304, Nicolas Guilhot looks at the period in the late 1940s and 1950s when behavioralism, with its positivist-empiricist and ahistorical style of inquiry, was becoming the dominant force in American political science. Guilhot describes a contrary tendency, a move to (in the words of the article’s abstract) "insulate the study of international politics from the behavioral revolution that was transforming the practice of political science in postwar America."

Two of the key figures in this countermovement were Hans Morgenthau and his former student Kenneth Thompson, who was at the Rockefeller Foundation from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s (and who later became director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia). Trained in international law (as were a number of other émigré IR scholars of the same generation, e.g. Arnold Wolfers and John Herz), Morgenthau was, as Hoffmann puts it, "steeped in a scholarly tradition that stressed the difference between social sciences and natural sciences." As an heir to that tradition and author of a book called Scientific Man versus Power Politics, Morgenthau was, not surprisingly, averse to behaviorialism, a type of social science that, to quote Hoffmann again, "suffered from ‘hyperfactualism’ and conformity."*** Nonetheless, as Guilhot points out, Morgenthau spoke of the importance of "general laws," which Guilhot interprets as mainly a strategic move on Morgenthau's part to gain a hearing and as "a tactical weapon against liberal historians and legal scholars" (p.296). (Other interpretations are possible: there are more sides to Morgenthau than this article suggests.)

In the often told and sometimes oversimplified story of IR’s so-called "first debate," Morgenthau and his fellow realists took on the illusions supposedly fostered by the liberal internationalists of the interwar period (Alfred Zimmern, James Shotwell, Nicholas Murray Butler, et al.).**** However, as Guilhot writes (p.296), Morgenthau, Thompson, and their allies believed that "the critique of interwar liberal internationalism…could not be complete without a simultaneous critique of the behavioral sciences, which were seen as responsible for the further depoliticization of social [science] and IR typical of liberalism." This stance led to an effort to set IR apart, to distinguish it from the direction in which "mainstream political science" was traveling in the postwar period. (p.283) At a paper prepared for a May 1954 conference, Morgenthau insisted – in words Guilhot italicizes – that: " 'A theory of international relations, to be theoretically valid, must build into its theoretical structure, as it were, those very qualifications which limit its theoretical validity and practical usefulness.' " (p.297) These "qualifications" amounted to the view that, as Morgenthau put it, "in reality you can only rely on a series of informed hunches." (quoted, p.297)

Guilhot’s article, based partly on research in the Rockefeller Foundation archives and also on a reading of academic publications from the period, throws light on the intellectual quarrels of the era. He sets the IR debates of the 1940s and 1950s in a wider context, emphasizing that they were "part of a discipline-wide conversation involving all the branches of political science" that centered on "the legitimacy of political science as a scientific project" (p.285) in the wake of the upheavals and catastrophes of the 1930s and 1940s which social science had done little or nothing to help avert. He also notes a kind of dilemma of certain postwar realists, who were caught between their need to distinguish themselves from so-called idealists, sometimes by using the language of "science," and their simultaneous desire to "protect" IR from behavioralism, a desire that, in terms of the rhetoric of "science," pulled them the other way. There is, in short, a lot of rich material in this article, much of which cannot be summarized here.

That said, the article also has a couple of weaknesses. First, Guilhot equates a strand of postwar American realism with "IR theory," period. Guilhot maintains that "the ‘theorization’ of IR was essentially meant to…make it immune to the cues of behaviorialism" (p.282) and that "the theory of IR was developed by [the Morgenthau-Thompson] group as a way to secure a space for its alternative vision of politics and scholarship" (p.282, emphasis in original). However, this use of the phrase "the theory of IR" implies, dubiously, that only this group was producing theory and thus, perhaps, tends to confuse more than it clarifies. Guilhot himself notes that "the postwar triumph of the 'realist' approach to international politics concealed deep discords within the ranks of the realists themselves" (p.301), disagreements that had to do with their attitudes about the utility of social-science methods and, more broadly, the degree of their skepticism about the possibilities of taming or moderating power politics.

More importantly, Guilhot’s judgment that the 1950s "realist gambit" was ultimately a failure (p. 300) exaggerates the current prevalence of behavioralist and rational-choice approaches. It is true, of course, that IR did not become separate from political science and in this sense the "gambit" did not succeed. Contrary to what Guilhot implies in his conclusion, however, "psychological, anthropological, or normative elements" (p.300) have not been banished from the tool kits or discourses of IR scholars. On the contrary, the field today is a cacophony of different approaches and orientations. If it were otherwise, scholars would not bother to publish exercises in "field-mapping."***** Admittedly, newly minted scholars who do a particular kind of work, involving for example the use of both quantitative and qualitative methods in the same study, may have an advantage in the current academic job market, at least in the United States. Hiring committees often seem to like candidates who can do quantitative work and are technically proficient. In this sense, self-consciously social-scientific norms prevail in the discipline. However, people continue to produce other kinds of work (some of it of equal or greater value), as a glance at the journals indicates. Indeed, the discipline of political science in the U.S. was engulfed in a much-noticed contest over these issues in recent years, as the "perestroika" movement charged that the field had tilted too far in a positivist, "scientific" direction. Today the large majority of IR scholars identify themselves as social scientists, but what counts as social science (or "good" or "real" social science) remains a matter of dispute, as it has for a long time. The debates of the 1950s discussed in Guilhot’s "The Realist Gambit" thus continue to reverberate, even if in a somewhat different key.


* Hoffmann’s essay first appeared in Daedalus 106 (3) (Summer 1977). It has been reprinted several times, e.g. in J. Der Derian (ed.), International Theory: Critical Investigations (1995), pp.212-241, and in Hoffmann’s Janus and Minerva (1987), ch.1.

** Hoffmann, "An American Social Science," in Der Derian, pp.222-23, 237.

*** Ibid., p.217.

**** See David Long and Peter Wilson (eds.), Thinkers of the Twenty Years’ Crisis: Inter-War Idealism Reassessed (1995).

***** For a recent example, see P.T. Jackson and D.H. Nexon, "Paradigmatic Faults in International-Relations Theory," International Studies Quarterly 53 (4) (December 2009): 907-930.

Further reading (a few suggestions)
R.M.A. Crawford and D.S.L. Jarvis (eds.), International Relations -- Still an American Social Science? (2000)

Christoph Frei, Hans J. Morgenthau: An Intellectual Biography (2001)

K.J. Holsti, "Scholarship in an Era of Anxiety: The Study of International Politics during the Cold War," in T. Dunne et al. (eds.), The Eighty Years' Crisis: International Relations 1919-1999 (1998)

Miles Kahler, "Inventing International Relations: IR Theory After 1945," in M. Doyle & J. Ikenberry (eds.), New Thinking in International Relations Theory (1997)

D. Long and P. Wilson (eds.), Thinkers of the Twenty Years' Crisis (1995)

Joel Quirk and Darshan Vigneswaran, "The Construction of an Edifice: The Story of a First Great Debate," Review of International Studies 31:1 (2005)

William Scheuerman, Hans Morgenthau: Realism and Beyond (2009)

Brian C. Schmidt, "The History of International Studies," in International Studies Encyclopedia Online, ed. R. Denemark (2010)

Michael J. Smith, Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger (1986)

Friday, December 18, 2009

India and the NPT

I'm embarrassed (again) to have missed this development when it happened, but I just learned this afternoon, from David Fidler and Sumit Ganguly's Newsweek column ("India's Bombshell," Dec. 14) about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's statement on November 29 that India is willing to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a nuclear weapons state. India, of course, has never signed the NPT (neither have Pakistan or Israel).

Singh's move comes as a considerable surprise, and as Fidler and Ganguly note, it puts the current NPT nuclear weapon states, especially the U.S. and China, in something of a quandary:
"To admit India as a nuclear-weapons state, NPT members would have to amend the treaty -- specifically, the provision that defines nuclear-weapons states as those that detonated a weapon before 1967. Opponents will argue that bringing India inside the nuclear club could set a dangerous precedent, dangling the possibility of legitimacy in front of other would-be nuclear states. But, given India's responsible behavior as a nuclear-weapons democracy, it would also strengthen the NPT at a moment when the treaty is under attack for its apparent ineffectiveness in curtailing nuclear violations in North Korea and Iran.... [T]he U.S. and China will have particularly hard choices to make. For Washington, opposing the NPT amendment would hurt its relationship with India.... And opposing Indian membership would make Beijing look selfish, more concerned with its own narrow interests than with non-proliferation."
I haven't figured out yet exactly what I think about this, but I have one gloss on this passage: India is effectively already a member of the nuclear club. Even though it's not in the NPT, India was the beneficiary of a deal with the U.S. on civilian nuclear power entered into last year. And it's not as if one hears much of an outcry from any of the current NPT nuclear weapon states about India's nuclear status. Moreover, how would India's joining the NPT affect its none-too-satisfactory relations with Pakistan? Might it not heighten resentment in Islamabad about perceived international favoritism toward India? And, in the long run, would that be good for India? All in all, I'm not sure I entirely agree with Fidler and Ganguly that joining the NPT "would confer enormous benefits on India." It will be interesting, in any case, to see what happens with this.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

George Will eats applesauce

Glancing at George Will's WashPost column today, I see he accuses Pres. Obama of serving "intellectual applesauce" with the line in the Oslo speech that affirmed that the human condition can be "perfected" despite an "imperfect" human nature. Will writes: "If the human condition can be perfected, then human nature cannot be significantly imperfect."

I noticed the same line in the speech, but I read it more charitably: in saying the human condition can be "perfected," Obama meant, I think, to say that it can be vastly improved. Was the sentence inartfully worded? Perhaps. Is it "intellectual applesauce"? No.

Monday, December 14, 2009

I'm a little embarrassed to admit this...

...because of what it might reveal about my reading habits, but I just now learned of Paul Samuelson's death, and from a blog, not a newspaper.

I don't generally note deaths here, even of notable people (though in recent months I did make exceptions for Kennedy and McNamara, in both cases because there was something I thought I wanted to say, even if not at much length). Not being an economist, I have nothing really to say about Samuelson except the most trivial, solipsistic thing: sitting on my bookcase -- actually now it's on my desk as I'm typing this -- is the tenth edition of Samuelson's Economics (copyright 1976), and suffice to say that it was brand new when I bought it. I don't do the confessional mode much, but I suddenly feel older than I did ten minutes ago (of course I am ten minutes older, but you know what I mean). It was not my favorite book, but I duly read it (well, parts of it), and I managed to pass the course (no, you may not ask what my grade was). I suppose I might even have managed to learn some basic "mainstream" economics, circa 1976.

Contrary to some advice for students going around these days -- there is so much more advice available now -- I did not "tech up" in college: no economics beyond the intro course, no statistics; but then I was never that way inclined. Nowadays, if I really put my mind to it, I can (more or less) understand quantitative articles in my field, or at least get the gist (unless they're only about methodology, in which case maybe not). But that's about it. Oh well.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Forbidden fruit

Nah, sorry, not that kind...

El Jefe Maximo writes about the significance of Dec. 11, 1941, the day Hitler declared war on the U.S. in the wake of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, asking what might have happened had Germany: (1) not declared war on the U.S. (i.e., stayed officially neutral in the war between the U.S. and Japan) or (2) actually declared war on Japan
(much less plausible a scenario, IMO). His post reminded me that R.N. Lebow's book on counterfactuals is forthcoming from Princeton Univ. Press under the somewhat odd title Forbidden Fruit. (I think the title may be explained in the opening chapter, available online, which I skimmed through at fairly high speed the other day; something about, you know, Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, whatever...oh yeah, and the tree of knowledge, how could I forget that?!? Duh.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Emersonian Obama

There is much that might be said (and no doubt much that has already been said) about Obama's Nobel acceptance speech. After a reading of the text that admittedly has not squeezed out every nuance, I highlight three points that seem especially noteworthy:

In dealing with repressive and so-called rogue regimes, the speech called for balancing sticks and carrots, sanctions that "exact a real price" and diplomacy. Although "engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation," he said, sanctions standing alone are not enough. "No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door." The recently announced U.S. policy on Sudan in fact followed this carrots-and-sticks approach.

(2) He insisted that justice and "a just peace" require the amelioration of poverty, in addition to the standard emphasis on civil and political rights. Economic and environmental security (including action on climate change) are linked here to traditional security. Indeed, this part of the speech could have been lifted from a textbook on "human security."

(3) Obama attempted, particularly in the closing passages, to reconcile a "clear-eyed" view of human imperfection with the possibility of progress. This might have recalled for some listeners parts of King's "I have a dream" speech, and indeed Obama quoted King on rejecting "despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history." And in a line that suggested at least one of his speechwriters might recently have been reading Thoreau or Emerson, Obama declared: "Let us reach for the world that ought to be -- that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls."

While there were perhaps some tensions in the speech between the "clear-eyed" and the more visionary elements, I don't think, contra the view of one of the commenters on the NewsHour this evening, that the speech was "philosophically incoherent." No American president at this juncture in history could possibly give a full-throated, unambiguously Wilsonian speech, but neither was it an option, particularly in view of the occasion and the context, to end on anything other than a note of solidarism, hope, and uplift. If anything, the speech erred too far in the direction of a quasi-Sisyphean view of the world. But Obama is no longer campaigning, he is governing and making difficult decisions, so it is only natural to expect that his speeches will strike more ambiguous chords than they did during the campaign.

Obama's Oslo speech

Just downloaded the text; haven't read it yet. May have some comment later.
Michael Bérubé has some fun with the protocol breaches.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A little thought experiment

The Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb, who was hanged by Nasser's regime in 1966 and whose fundamentalist version of Islam contributed to the ideological formation of al-Qaeda, spent some time in the U.S. at the end of the 1940s. As a student in Colorado, Qutb had a variety of experiences that, shall we say, rubbed him very much the wrong way and helped persuade him of the moral bankruptcy of American culture.

In the opening chapter of his 2006 book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright described Qutb's reaction to a church dance in 1949 (Qutb at the time was a student at the Colorado State College of Education, now the Univ. of Northern Colorado):
"On Sundays the college did not serve food, and students had to fend for themselves. Many of the international students, including Muslims like Qutb, would visit one of the more than fifty churches in Greeley [Co.] on Sunday evening, where, after services, there were potluck dinners and sometimes a dance. 'The dancing hall was decorated with yellow, red, and blue lights,' Qutb recalled on one occasion. 'The room convulsed with the feverish music from the gramophone. Dancing naked legs filled the hall, arms draped around the waists, chests met chests, lips met lips, and the atmosphere was full of love.' The minister gazed upon this sight approvingly, and even dimmed the lights to enhance the romantic atmosphere. Then he put on a song titled 'Baby, It's Cold Outside,' a sly ballad from an Esther Williams movie that summer, Neptune's Daughter. 'The minister paused to watch his young charges swaying to the rhythms of this seductive song, then he left them to enjoy this pleasant, innocent night,' Qutb concluded sarcastically."
Imagine what Qutb would make of certain aspects of American culture if he were still alive and happened to plop down on either the East or West coasts today (or any other part of the country, probably, but let's stick to the coasts for this thought experiment). For example, on a December weekend in Miami Beach he would see young women in scanty bikinis posing for fashion-shoots at hotel pools and in hotel lobbies. Everywhere he would see youth, physicality, and sex being used to sell every imaginable product. He would turn on a re-run of a TV program like 90210 and see actors in their 20s who look like they have stepped out of the pages of fashion magazines pretending -- badly and unconvincingly -- to be high-school students and operating on the premise that their school is simply the venue in which their complicated "romantic" (read, sex) lives unfold. He would be pursued by "seductive rhythms" or merely insistently obtrusive "music" in virtually every public space, rendering sequential thought a challenge and reflection even more difficult. Given his reaction to a church dance in Colorado in 1949, what would be Qutb's reaction to these and similar aspects of American culture today? The mind boggles.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

No instant analysis

In keeping with my announcement of a break (see previous post), there will be no immediate commentary here on the West Point speech.
Those hungry for instant comment can, for starters, head over to Wash Post and read Meyerson (ambivalent) and, if you can stomach it, Kristol (typically obnoxious).